What movie was that...?

12 April 2012

Titanic

directed by James Cameron

Of course I went to see Titanic in 3D. Not because of the technology, but because of the awesomeness…

"Sayonara, standard 2D formatting..."
Much has been made of the 3D affectation with which Mr James Cameron has dressed his magnum opus, and frankly I couldn’t care less about the thrills jumping off the screen and into my face. That’s not the reason I was so keen to get back in the auditorium and watch Titanic on the big screen again. I was excited to see it on the silver screen again because Titanic is one of the handful of films that only truly exist when displayed thusly: on an enormous screen in a darkened theater. The muted sound of the projector mixing with excited popcorn crunching and anxious whispers, the hug of the seat and pure joy of watching an adventure unfold before your eyes. The deluge of expertly created and mixed sound sending you far from the stresses of regular life.

Digital cinema has all but killed the wonderful clicking, ticking sounds that seep from the projection booth (one of my all time favorite sounds. I could listen to it as an ambient noise track to help me fall asleep, I love it so much), but the experience of sitting down in a dark auditorium, waiting to be whisked away from reality is a feeling that I seem to freshly discover with each visit to the movies. The closest approximation I have been able to find is that of surfers who find pleasure in the experience of the search, of catching each new wave, because each wave is unique and will never occur again. Damn, do I love the movies!

And few movies seem to beg to be watched on the big screen like Titanic. Merian C Cooper’s King Kong, perhaps, or Steven Speilberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jaws. Once Upon a Time in the West. We cinephiles out there can surely list our favorites, but this much is true, big screen films carry a magic that fills us up with a feeling that seems to brighten the world, to make it more vibrant, more vivid. In Titanic, James Cameron found a balance of story, thrilling action, romantic nostalgia, romantic romance and all star talent to create one of the finest examples of a big screen movie in the past 20 years. Titanic is a film that envelopes you in every wonderful way, attaching itself to the part of your brain that generates fond memories, or the part that involuntarily says “awww” at the sight two kittens scampering after a ball of yarn. In short, Titanic makes you feel like you just watched a damned movie!

I have roughed up Mr. C for his Avatar fiasco, but I have championed his successes (The Abyss, Aliens, Terminator, Terminator 2), and when you have a resume like James Cameron’s, it’s hard to even compare him to anyone but himself. Cameron clearly has a type when it comes to plot, a type under which all of his films fall with very little variation. The story is usually that of an everyperson (or a small group of everypeople) who, under the pressure or influence of some distant and vast entity, is forced to either undertake a mission or to make a decision or series of decisions that ultimately result in the undoing of the group, or at least some generalized calamity. In the Abyss, the everypeople (Ed Harris, et al) were deep beneath the sea executing a dangerous mission put upon them by the Feds (the distant and vast entity), which resulted in poor Michael Biehn going crazy and Ed Harris sinking deep below the sea and meeting those aliens. The same sentence can be written for Aliens (the team sent to the planet, the Company, the mission itself, the death of everyone but Ripley, Newt, and Hicks), but I am supposedly talking about Titanic in this review, so let’s get back on track.

-sigh-
In Titanic, James Cameron finds the perfect historical event to distill his worldview into a kind of microcosm of sorts, with the sinister conglomerate the White Star Line (read: The Company, the Skynet of the early 1900s) existing both on and off the ship, and the ship itself being a symbol of mankind’s arrogance. Cameron’s Titanic is the white whale that represents both the glory of mankind’s achievements and dangers his zeal and arrogance can manifest. In a sense, the true story of Titanic and Cameron’s film are at once a tragedy and a cautionary tale urging us to think before we do. White Star Line toadie Joseph Ismay is the Satan to Captain Edward Smith’s Faust, convincing Smith to abandon his years of salty dog experience so that he can end his career with a bang. Rose is the everywoman railing against the oppressive societal convention whilst Cal is the smarmy embodiment of the oppressive convention. And Jack Dawson- be still my heart- is the personification of the beauty that mankind can achieve when in harmony with the ebb and flow of the universe.

Jack’s little speech at the dinner table perfectly sums up the intended moral of Jimmy C’s film, that life is a gift and we all should spend a little more time focusing on the here and now instead of clamoring after things, material possessions that only entrap the owner. Jimbo’s dichotomous parties illustrate his intended message as well, that those without all the glamorous trappings of luxury and wealth appear to have a bond those in the upper deck will never know. There is a sense of family below deck, of exuberance, of grabbing life by the throat, of really living. Rose fits in down there, with folks who live with gusto, though the fact that every single person in the hull of that ship would gladly trade places with Molly Brown in 2 microseconds if given the opportunity is a concept that I think Mr C was kind of hoping we won’t linger on…

No matter, because the pairing of Kate and Leo (two of the finest actors of their generation) conjured up enough magic to hide even the clunkiest screenwriting Jim could muster. It’s a classic formula that works because history tells us we love the story of star crossed lovers, of a connection made between two very different worlds (said world in this case being the social ones). Romeo and Juliet, Aphrodite and Hephaestus, Leia and Han. These pairings give us hope that love can truly conquer all (though often these pairings result in less than happy endings, so what does that tell you about us?). The audience is allowed to be swept off their feet by Jack as he makes Rose feel like there is no one else as special in all the world. This relationship is perfect in that we never have to see what happens after they ride off into the sunset (read: the rest of their lives as they learn about one another). It’s perfect because we can fill in the gaps with our wildest hopes and most star gazingly romantic fantasies. Jack and Rose’s relationship is perfect because it never has to be imperfect, because we don’t have to see the phase when Rose gets pissed at Jack for not getting a real job after they get kicked out of their third flat, or when Jack loses the heart of the ocean betting on a dog fight. Again, I’m guessing Cameron was hoping we wouldn’t focus on that, either.

Lastly, the thrills and the spectacle of James Cameron action is nearly unparalleled, and the way he was able to personify the chill of the North Atlantic, the sinister way with which the icy water permeates and penetrates every nook and cranny of the great ship, is both gripping and hypnotic. There is a scene in which the sea water creeps up a corridor, toward us in the audience like a boogieman or intruder, that still gives me the creepy crawlies. The frenzy that ensues on board as civility breaks down in the face of inevitability is enervating and sobering, at least until we walk out into real life again and promptly forget all about it. Cynicism aside, Titanic is thrilling in the quintessential way a film can be thrilling, full of ups and downs, surprises and danger, and special effects on such a grand scale as to leave you breathless. Hell, Cameron’s lust for realism drove him to build a 90% scale replica Titanic in Mexico just to sink it for shit’s sake!

Romance, historical accuracy, thrills, action, danger, Leo. What more do you need, you film snobs who pawn this off as nothing more than a throwaway popcorn film? It can’t all be Kafka and Bergman, you elitists! If that’s all you value in film, then you can keep your subtitles and your issues of The Economist and your Leonard Cohen. Titanic is classicist cinema at its finest, a film that seeks to depict a real event not only as it was, but as we want it to be. The story is a perfect package, bookended by an earring clad Bill Paxton meant to represent us, the modern inquisitor at first interested merely in artifacts who is ultimately swept away in the romance of the story, and the tragedy.

Of course, none of us were completely blinded by the razzle dazzle of Rose and Jack's love affair. We all knew she took Jack from his love in much the same way he took her from Cal...
"We're the two best friends that
anybody could have!"
"I trust you Jack. Say, where's
your Italian friend?"
"You two timing- that was our
spot!"
As this is clearly the longest review I have ever written, I am going to cut this windbag essay off by saying that I love Titanic for all the reasons that many people hate Titanic, and I went back to see it on the big screen not because of the 3D, but because seeing it on the big screen is like seeing an endangered animal in its natural habitat. It’s magic.

PS I love you, Leonard Cohen.

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff! I wholeheartedly agree with you! Great to see so many Titanic lovers coming out of the woodwork. I don't know about you, but I actually loved the 3D. I've seen the film so many damn times that sometimes I found myself staring into the back of the shots and admiring the sets more than the characters! And knowing that when I was in the cinema, the actual Titanic was on it's voyage 100 yrs ago added to the emotional weight of the film. What an absolute classic and a great write up!

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  2. I wasn't totally thrilled with the 3D (then again, I never am. Except for Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that is), but the sheer magic of seeing Titanic back on the big screen was enough for me. I have always championed the merits of this film, particularly to my film snob friends who treat it with a kind of dismissive loathing that I never understood. I'm glad that intelligent folks with a well rounded filmic view (like yourself, my friend)have been showing their support of late. I will never let go!

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